Pantyhose Regaining Footing After Losing Legs

You used to see them on every working woman's legs and draped over every family bathtub, but with fashion changing and office dress becoming more casual, the question is: “Do pantyhose still have legs?”

That sheer hosiery has become less popular among American women since it peaked in the 1980s is a given, even among the gam-covering garments' most ardent supporters.

“It's really a number of factors: changes in the workplace, environment, a more relaxed dress code has become prevalent, employees are allowed to telecommute and work out of the home, the onset of the dot-commers,” said Sally Kay, president and CEO of the trade group The Hosiery Association, in Charlotte, N.C. "All of these external forces have had an impact on what people are wearing to the workplace.”

Julia Townsend, executive vice president and general manager of Kayser-Roth, which manufactures the No Nonsense and HUE brands, said those trends were then exacerbated by retailers.

“The response to that in retail was to contract hosiery space in a way that outpaced the decline in consumer decline, and so that has exaggerated category decline in the past five years,” she said.

For the entire industry, retail sales of sheer hosiery, which includes pantyhose, knee-high and thigh-high sheer hose, have fallen from just under $1.65 billion in 2000 to $951 million in 2005 (those numbers excluded Wal-Mart, clubs, catalog and Internet sales, but included drugstores, food chains and mass stores besides Wal-Mart).

In that same span of time, the percentage of sales sheers were responsible for fell from 56 percent to 37 percent, with other products like trousers, tights and socks picking up the slack.

Industry leader Hanesbrands says that the average American woman between 25 and 54 wears pantyhose 1.8 times a week now, compared to 3.5 times a week in the mid-90s.

For young women, a lot of the problem with pantyhose boils down to two things: image and comfort. Pantyhose were once portrayed as sexy and sophisticated — and required.

“[My mother] got suspended from Ole Miss or written up by the dean or something for not wearing pantyhose back in the day,” said Brooklyn, N.Y., schoolteacher Paisley Davidson.

But the golden era of pantyhose has fallen to the new age of bare legs.

“Why wear nude when nature has already provided you with skin?” said Hanh Bui, a Brooklynite who is beginning law school in the fall.

New Jersey television producer Aimee Kreger Brooks even cast pantyhose as another burden women have to bear.

“There are three things that women have to deal with that men don't, which stink,” she said. “One, periods. Two, bras. Three, pantyhose.”

But don't toss out those hose yet. In the last year, hosiery companies have been coming up with ways to patch up those runs in their pantyhose sales. There have been technological innovations like anti-cellulite or skin-moisturizing hose and shaping sheers, along with fashion inventions like a wider variety of fishnet patterns and colors and multi-piece hose.

At the same time, the sheer-hosiery sector has consolidated itself, with a number of smaller companies merging or going out of business, leaving some 13 stronger hosiery companies left in the U.S., according to Kay.

A number of designers showing off their lines for 2007 incorporated sheer hosiery into their designs, thanks to the emphasis on short skirts.

Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent and Anna Sui went for fishnets, while Viktor & Rolf clad their models in sheer footless with metallic embellishments.

“Whenever you see dresses and skirts return, legwear takes a leading role,” Townsend said.

All that, and a colder autumn than usual translated to something even hosiery companies were pleasantly surprised by — a modest but notable uptick in sales for sheer hosiery. HUE brand sales were up 3 percent in fall 2006, and No nonsense was up 5 percent.

The lesson? Never count a fashion trend out for good, Townsend said.

“Fashion is cyclical,” she said. “Everything comes back again.”